Martin Next Door

If I can’t quite believe it,
that is because it’s not quite believable, how Martin and I and his wife Pang
could have been staring through the cold winter glass of a Brighton
restaurant, discussing things like the burnt out pier…just weeks ago, weeks
that number in the single digits…and now one of us is dead.  Presenting
the facts, logically it is the person with the leukemia, the one with the
chemotherapy tube dangling from his neck, who should be dead.  And, yes,
this is the case.  It is Martin.  And the fact is that although it is
a fact, I can stare this fact in the face and still not believe it.  Which
one might suppose involves denial or escape.  But no, something about this
reality is not credible.  Another way of saying that Martin was
incredible.  The facts refuse to coalesce into what they are, that Martin
has died.  So I am left with this bit of hollowing that comes when I tell
myself the truth.  Martin is dead.  Leaving something hollow in the
future, it seems, but not quite the present.  And certainly not the past.

 

It was 1970 or so, I had
volunteered to help a neighborhood group in West London,
needed a photographer who would contribute his time…and there he was, two
doors down, Martin.  I must slow down, for I find myself abbreviating
things.  In retrospect, how I moved to a foreign country and became so
involved so quickly in things local , well I don’t know.  But I must give
myself credit.  And to return to the action….  Directed by my
landlord, I knocked Martin’s door.  He undid the latch and eyed me
suspiciously, not altogether enthused about even admitting who he was. 
Yes, he drawled cautiously, when I asked if he was Martin Breese.  He
listened carefully to whatever I had to say, then to my surprise ushered me
into his sitting room.

 

Inside was another
world.  I was the very single occupant of a bedsitting room.  Martin
and Anthea and Sophie had an expansive domesticity under way, all of it barely
packed into a small flat.  The floor was strewn with toys.  As a
firstborn toddler, Sophie was something of a toy herself.  There was still
the air of novelty about having a child, something intriguing and yet under
discovery.  Martin must have directed me to a chair, Anthea probably made
tea, and a predictably British social occasion must have ensued.  But I
can’t remember.  What I do recall was tuning into Anthea.  Martin’s
wife somehow felt more like me, a person who connected with people one at a
time.  Someone who did not keep multiple strains of conversation and
activity going at once.  Which set her apart from Martin, and also defined
me.

 

What did we talk
about?  Well, definitely my request: would Martin volunteer to take some
photos in the neighborhood?  No, he shook his head sadly, as though
reporting on some general development.  The portraiture he did for the
Sunday Times was not anything a community group would want.  Slipping out
of the room or seemingly reaching across it, Martin produced some of his
latest.  A book or a file or pages from the Sunday Times Magazine, I
cannot recall, but there they were, his subjects.  London’s trendy people of the day. 
Michelangelo Antonioni staring at Martin’s camera, looking rather vacant, every
pore revealed in high contrast.  My host allowed a moment to pass. 
His work was merciless, Martin explained.  No effort to make people
pleasing or pretty.

 

Really?  Do you want to
show Paul something?  Martin had easily shifted to his daughter, Sophie
having discovered a toy or a parent or simply the delight of being her
two-year-old self.  While not…and for this I was infinitely
grateful…excluding me.  No, Sophie did not want to show me anything,
most likely.  But Martin did.  That I was welcome, part of the
proceedings, not forgotten.  Anthea probably asked if I wanted more
tea.  Either way, it is likely that Martin helped with the delivery of
cups, milk, sugar.  Anthea had her troubles.  She had the occasional
treatment, was probably under sedation of some kind when I met her.  And
Martin likely shouldered more family responsibilities that most men. 
Still, with his antic capacity for what today we would call ‘multitasking,’ he
seemed to keep practical matters in hand, maintain several strains of
conversation, his portraiture now quietly shoved to one side of the armchair,
all of us moving on to something else.

 

Which was what?  Having
ruled himself out as a volunteer photographer, where did our conversation
go?  Surely my disability must have arisen.  I had a way of giving
the most summary account possible whenever asked.  For whatever irrational
reason, I told my story with shame.  I wanted to get the facts out, move
onto something else.  So when Martin had answered his door that evening,
the young man he saw leaning on a crutch, one hand paralyzed and looking
cockeyed, what he saw was someone doing his best to project normalcy.  Hi,
I’m Paul, and I’m…blah, blah.  Just out for an evening knocking on
neighbors’ doors.  That’s what I do, me and my crutch.  No big
deal.  And let’s not discuss it.

 

Still, I must have been a
sight.  Certainly, a conversation piece.  I am also certain that
conversation did not revolve around me.  What then?  I left, and
somehow I came back.  Martin told me to.  That is certain.  That
it was hard, also certain.  Nothing was easy for me then.  I had been
out of the hospital, oh, maybe in about a year.  Everything was still new
and difficult regarding the disability.  Meeting people was not easy.


When I returned to the
States, my cousin Bob moved into the room.  This gave me an easy and
convenient reason to keep returning to Norland Square.  And equally good
reason to see Martin, who lived almost next door.  Over the years, things
changed.  On one return visit to the UK I do recall that Anthea was in a
psychiatric hospital.  I must have accompanied Martin on a visit. 
Although I am not entirely certain.  Perhaps I saw Anthea shortly after
she had been released.  Or both.  Whatever happened, we had crossed
some line early in our acquaintance.  There was no question we were
friends.  And Martin being Martin, adventuresome, that is, in his company
I had adventures too.  What were they?  More about this later.

 

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